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Explained: Why rumours of North Korea leader Kim Jong Un’s ill-health erupted, again

This is not the first time US newsrooms have gone into a tizzy over Kim Jong Un’s reported poor health, only to be debunked later.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: April 22, 2020 10:16:14 pm
Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Un unwell, Kim Jong Un health, CNN Kim Jong Un health, North Korea, Kim Jong Un illness, Kim Jong Un surgery, express explained, indian express In this undated photo provided by the North Korean government on April 12, Kim Jong Un inspects an air defense unit in western area, North Korea. (Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

On Tuesday, Asia woke up to alerts from American journalists and news publications — specifically from CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto — claiming the US was monitoring “intelligence” that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un’s health had deteriorated following surgery.

Katy Tur from US broadcaster NBC tweeted that Kim was purportedly “brain dead, according to two US officials” following a “cardiac surgery and (had) slipped into coma…@NBCNews confirms….” Her tweet was deleted shortly after.

Reports from South Korean government officials soon emerged, saying the US journalists’ claims pertaining to Kim Jong Un were not accurate.

This is not the first time US newsrooms have gone into a tizzy over Kim Jong Un’s reported ill health, only to be debunked later.

Unsubstantiated rumours of the North Korean leader’s health have always been a subject of discussion and debate — from grandparents in South Korea to political circles in Washington DC., in part due to the challenges journalists face in verifying reports from the country.

How did speculation start?

Due to the lack of access to information concerning North Korea, journalists and North Korea watchers track public events and official meetings and reports to understand the developments in the country.

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On April 15, Kim Jong Un did not participate in birth anniversary celebrations of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, an important public event in the country, for the first time since 2012. This led to speculation regarding the reasons why Kim may have missed the anniversary.

In the past three weeks in April, two dispatches by North Korean state media indicated that Kim had conducted one inspection of assault planes while another dispatch stated he had chaired a political meeting. Kim appeared to be absent at a missile launch last week, an event he usually attends.

What was the basis of these reports?

CNN and other journalists and news organisations appear to have jumped onto these claims about Kim Jong Un following a report in Korean published in The Daily NK, an online portal funded by US government agencies and private donors, that gets its information purportedly from North Korean defectors and informants.

“Kim Jong-un recently had a cardiovascular procedure…Still on special treatment”, said an English version of the report. The report was updated several hours later with changes, including the headline that now reads: “Source: Kim Jong Un recently received heart surgery”. A correction in the article said that it had been written based on a single source in North Korea, not multiple sources as originally mentioned.

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The Daily NK claimed their source had said the North Korean leader’s health took a turn for the worse following a visit to the venerated Mount Paektu, that North Korea believes is the birthplace of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong Il. “Kim had suffered from inflammation of blood vessels involving the heart from last August, but his condition worsened after he made multiple trips up and down Mt. Paektu recently,” The Daily NK quoted its source as saying.

This single-sourced report was then picked up by several international news publications like CNN, whose brands seemed to lend some credibility to the original report despite having no clear evidence to support the claim. Journalists on social media then stated that US and South Korean intelligence agencies were monitoring these claims.

What happened next?

Reuters then reported that the South Korean government and the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department had dismissed these claims concerning Kim Jong Un.

According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, South Korea’s presidential office, the Cheong Wa Dae, stated that “no special signs” had been detected with regard to Kim’s health.

The North Korean government, who meticulously monitor international news for reports about their country and leader, have not officially made any statement in this regard.

This past weekend, US President Donald Trump claimed to have received a “nice note” from Kim Jong Un. However, North Korea’s foreign ministry insisted that no such letter had been sent from Kim to Trump.

Following the emergence of the “ill-health” reports, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the US did not have information concerning the North Korean leader’s health.

Has this happened before?

Kim Jong Un’s health has always been a subject of speculation among North Korea watchers. Two years prior to his father’s death in 2011, the first known reports of his health began to emerge, which suggested he had hypertension and diabetes.

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In 2014, Kim Jong Un was not seen in public for approximately six weeks between September and October. That year, after he failed to participate in parliamentary meetings, rumours surrounding his health suggested he had gout, following a rare government statement admitting he had been suffering from an “uncomfortable physical situation”. Earlier that year, Kim had been seen on North Korean television footage walking with a noticeable limp. In October 2014, North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun published several images of the leader with a cane.

Soon after he became the leader of the country, Kim was not seen in television broadcasts for 21 days in March 2012, followed by a longer absence in June that year. In 2013, he was absent from broadcasts for approximately 18 days. Fluctuations in Kim Jong Un’s weight is also regularly closely monitored by South Korean, US, Japanese and Chinese government officials, among others, in an attempt to know more about his health.

However, North Korea watchers have maintained that Kim’s absence from the public eye is not necessarily an indicator of his poor health.

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